Douglas Rushkoff is a professor media studies and a public school parent in New York. This is an adaptation of a presentation that he made to his local school board.




I am father of a 7th grader.

I am also the author of 17 books and four television documentaries about life in the digital media environment, a professor of media and society at CUNY, founder of its Laboratory for Digital Humanism, research fellow at Institute for the Future, and a frequent consultant on computers, education, and digital health to school districts, the US congress, the White House, the United Nations and governments around the world.

I am still enthusiastic about the promise of digital technology to enhance education and human potential. But I am also aware of who constructed our social media platforms, and for what purpose. Social media makes money by encouraging engagement – or what they call “eyeball hours” – by any means necessary. They employ advanced psychological tactics in order to make people – young and old – feel bad if they don’t check in regularly and worse if they try to leave a platform altogether.

The “streak” feature on SnapChat, for example, was developed in the Captology lab of Stanford University. Captology, as the name suggests, is the study of how to “capture” and maintain attention. The streak is simply a number corresponding to how many days in a row you chatted with a particular person. It’s also a way to turn socializing and posting into a competitive sport.

It will make anyone – even teachers and school administrators – feel terrible about missing a day of posting. It is just one of hundreds of techniques used by social media to make people anxious and depressed, such as adding pictures of your “ex” having fun to your newsfeed. Some techniques were drawn from Las Vegas slot machine algorithms, themselves based on decades of practice addicting gamblers to self-destructive behaviors.

My friends – the people who developed Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms – are now regretting what they did, but they are feeling powerless to change things. This is because the companies they work for are run by shareholders who simply want more hours, more posts, more engagement from us – by any means necessary.

Sean Parker, the ex-founder of Napster who guided young Mark Zuckerberg through the early days of Facebook, says the platform was built by “consciously exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” focused on figuring out “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'” Now Parker says he’s a “conscientious objector” from social media and worries “what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

These are America’s most powerful businesses, seeking to infiltrate our awareness. They are not only psychologically damaging, but intellectually compromising.

We multitask, assuming that – like our computers – we can do more than one thing at the same time. Study after study has shown that multitasking humans invariably get less done, less accurately, with less depth, and less understanding. This is true even when we believe we have accomplished more.

Other studies have shown that:

   – we function poorly and remember less if our smart phone is in the same room, even if it is turned off.

   – we read slower and with less comprehension if our email program is open in the background – even if the program’s window is completely covered.

   – the algorithms of social media feeds can not only predict our future behavior, but change it. They intentionally discourage creative outcomes that defy their predictions or stray from our big data classifications. They actively and intentionally reduce innovative and non-conformist behavior.

   – social media makes us less able to separate fact from fiction, makes us feel worse about our lives, lowers our self-esteem, and increases tribal, racial, and nativist divisions. It profits off polarity, sensationalism, violence, and impulsiveness.

As my friend, the inventor of virtual reality Jaron Lanier puts it, “The popular platforms are designed for behavior modification. Why would you go sign up for an evil hypnotist who’s explicitly saying that his whole purpose is to get you to do things that people have paid him to get you to do, but he won’t tell you who they are?”

A school district may have real reasons for resorting social media, but if they do so, they should at least be conscious of the compromise they are making, and the specific goals they are pursuing.

For instance, a district with poor community relations may seek to improve them by posting pictures on social media feeds. If attendance at school events is low, or if the town is too big for people to be exposed to schoolchildren, social media can be used to promote more enthusiasm for events, or passage of a school budget or bond issue. But in communities where people have face-to-face contact, social media does not improve relationships or institutional affiliations; research shows that it degrades them.

A famously bad school district can use social media to chronicle and publicize its turnaround to the world at large. This can help attract new families to the district, increase property values, and, in turn, increase the tax base. Again, most districts are not in need of such rehabilitation, and do better at fixing their problems when they’re not under a spotlight. 

Social media can help school administrators and employees promote their perspectives and careers. An educator may implement a classroom approach and want to publicize it – both to share best practices with other educators or to position themself for a better job somewhere else or even just better book sales. That’s fine, but it makes the classroom secondary to some other agenda, and turns the students into unwitting promotional tools. Better to do this on a website or blog than a competitive and manipulative social media platform, anyway.

Finally, when teachers or administrators are using social media in the classroom or at school activities, it models the addictive, life-negating behavior that we don’t want our kids to emulate. If teachers are looking for social media opportunities during the school day, then they are being distracted from the face-to-face, in-person contact that defines classroom education. Taking a selfie with a student, however well-meaning, conveys that the moment is less significant than the Tweet. Sad. I want my kid to feel that what she’s accomplished in class matters in its own right, even if it is not posted to Facebook!

Social media should not be mistaken for the internet. These platforms are categorically different than a school’s website. They are private companies, using black-box technologies to sell data about us and use it against us in ways they themselves are appalled by. Steve Jobs did not let his kids use an iPad. The Facebook employees I know will not let their kids go to schools that use social media.

Social media companies have spent billions of dollars developing algorithmically charged, adaptive mind control methodologies – as well as propaganda and government lobbying on why these activities make us stronger, smarter, more popular, happier, richer, and more loved.   It’s very hard to fight this psychological manipulation, and the more we use social media, the more we accept its premies.

Right now, those of us in the digital trenches are dealing with a problem named “Elsagate” – hundreds of videos targeting children that have been designed to pass through YouTube’s safety filters so that they appear in the pre-approved YouTube Kids’ Channel. They depict stories such as baby Elsa (from Disney’s Frozen) stealing her parents liquor, drinking it, turning violent, and killing her sister; another shows baby Spiderman being raped by his father; and other scenes calculated by their makers to inflict psychological trauma on American children. It’s a pediatric form of the same memetic warfare used against American adults in the last presidential election cycle. We still don’t know who is behind them.

They get through YouTube’s algorithms because those algorithms are not really there to help kids. They are there to help advertisers reach kids, and to make humans more predictable, less coherent, more anxious, and less genuinely social. This space favors the trolls, the abusers, and the marketers. It’s hard enough raising kids; now theres’ a multi-trillion-dollar industry working overtime to make our kids less cooperative, more irritable, and hyper-reactive. And we’re already required to surrender our kids to these companies, because so much education is happening online.

Making money is not bad. But making money by abusing people through intentionally addictive technologies *is* bad. The Internet is fabulous public utility. Social media are privately owned platforms operated so maliciously that they constitute public health crisis.

In short, social media really has no place in school. Sure, we can use it as an example in our media literacy classes. We can teach how the business model works, the attention economy on which it is based, the algorithmic logic of its choices, and the behavioral manipulation embedded in its interfaces. But we mustn’t post our kids pictures, promote our school activities, or start important policy conversations on networks entirely unfit for the purpose.

This shouldn’t stop schools from running their own websites, posting announcements and pictures when appropriate, and giving parents the ability to opt-out on behalf of their children.  The same goes for running articles and photos in local papers, which are our true media partners serving community interests.

We must not let our own addiction to social media cloud our judgment about how to educate our children and represent our schools or districts. Keep this stuff out of the classroom until you understand who’s behind it, how it works, and how it is influencing your choices. 




Douglas Rushkoff is the host of TeamHuman a professor of media studies, and the author of books including Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus and Program or Be Programmed.